When police accidentally fire their weapon.


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

A recent study by John O’Neill in the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management examined the factors that contribute to the Unintentional Discharge (UD) of firearms by law enforcement officers. UDs, according to the author, are unplanned gunshots by law enforcement officers, regardless of the situation in which they occur.

His work merged data sets involving 308 documented reports of UDs across 11 law enforcement agencies.  Ten of the agencies were located in the United States.  He identified six types of antecedent conditions, discussed below, that increase the likelihood of UDs, and offered solutions.

Routine Tasks.  The author noted that the majority of UDs occur during routine tasks involving the firearm.  Common examples include holstering or unholstering, clearing the weapon, and conducting function checks or dry firing the weapon.  Among the preventative solutions provided were visual and tactile checks of the barrel before clearing and cleaning

Muscle Coactivations.  Situations involving muscle coactivation involve unintentional motor movements that inadvertently put pressure on the trigger.  Examples include loss of balance, loss of grip, or activations involving other fingers or limbs.  The author suggests that approximately 25% of UDs occur in such situations.  His proposed solutions included more training with nonlethal ammunition, training on operating the weapon with an indexed trigger finger, and training to not regain grip or to catch a falling firearm.

Unfamiliar Tasks.  About a tenth of incidents involved unfamiliar tasks.  Such tasks included operating a new type of firearm, using a new holster or holstering in a new location, or handling the weapon in a novel way.  Among the proposed solutions were trainings on weapons handling with non dominant hands, low light weapons techniques, and increased emphasis on holster design and matching to firearms.

Contact with Objects.  Another tenth of incidents involved contact with objects, such that the trigger is activated by the object rather than the officer.  Over half of the UDs in this category involved inanimate objects, while others included the officer’s clothing, and animate objects.  Solutions included a closer examination of holsters to eliminate potential access points for clothing, and a reexamination of gear and other common objects in terms of their ability to enter the trigger guard.

Startle Stimuli.  UDs evoked by startle stimuli involve involuntary muscle contractions across the body that begin with an eye blink.  Startle stimuli were extremely rare, but most included visual stimuli, followed by auditory.  Training suggestions here included more practice at maintaining trigger finger position in the face of sudden stimuli changes or losses of balance, in conjunction with nonlethal ammunition.

Medical Symptoms.  The author found one UD associated with a medical symptom when an officer experienced a seizure.  It was not clear if the officer had a pre existing condition that required medication or if the condition was unknown to the officer.  Preventative measures included regular medical screening, and more attention paid to factors contributing to stress, fatigue, and drug use.

To read the full study, and see more data, be sure to check out the full article.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world, bSci21.org.  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at todd.ward@bsci21.org

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